Writer-director Debra Granik merges grit, grace and emotional authenticity to splendid effect in “Leave No Trace,” a stirring father-daughter drama and picture of human decency.
Adapted by Granik and cowriter Anne Rosellini from the fact-inspired novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, the film (opening Friday at the Embarcadero) is a coming-of-age and survival story that, like Granik’s Ozarks-set “Winter’s Bone,” features characters living on society’s fringes and a teenager navigating thorny family dynamics.
But love, not menace, characterizes the journey this time, in a Pacific Northwest setting.
Will (Ben Foster), a widowed war-traumatized veteran who can’t handle city life, has been lovingly raising his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), in a woodsy public park near Portland when the story begins. The two forage, collect wood and, at their makeshift camp, cook, read books, play chess and sleep in a tent.
Despite Will’s obsessive efforts to avoid detection, the two are spotted, taken in, and housed.
Tom welcomes the safety of her new surroundings and becomes friends with a boy whose rabbit, named Chainsaw, she adores.
Will, however, remains closed down and restless. “Pack your things,” he instructs Tom, and they escape, to higher altitudes.
A life-threatening ordeal leads to a stay in a rustic hamlet, where, again, Tom wants to join the hospitable community while Will feels impelled to flee. Now, however, Tom is beginning to reject her father’s path.
While Granik welcomely avoids cliched war flashbacks, we wish she’d gone deeper into Will’s head. The lack of detail hampers understanding of the damaged man.
Still, the filmmaker has created a heartbreaking, suspenseful, uplifting film containing one of the most moving parent-child breaking-away stories in memory.
Compared to similarly themed fare, the movie is more profoundly affecting than the likable but light “Hearts Beat Loud” and more believable than the colorful “Captain Fantastic.”
A terrific visual storyteller with a realistic style, Granik doesn’t judge her characters or over explain. Displaying an observational talent Frederick Wiseman would admire, she makes regular activities — Will building a fire in the rain; father and daughter brushing dirt off each other when heading into town to buy food — fascinating.
She also builds impressive tension, as when the protagonists contend with the forces of nature or when Will’s paranoia is increasing.
The always excellent Foster is commanding, but Will is written too opaquely to be psychologically compelling. The film tells Tom’s story, and as she transforms from unquestioning daughter to independent-minded young woman, the New Zealand-bred McKenzie, echoing Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone,” soars.
While there’s sadness in the movie, it’s countered with hope, and Granik’s faith in humanity proves contagious.
Everyone in the movie — from social workers to truck drivers to a compassionate townswoman played by Granik alum Dale Dickey to Chainsaw the rabbit — is credibly kind and worth knowing.
Leave No Trace
Three and a half stars
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican
Written by: Anne Rosellini, Debra Granik
Directed by: Debra Granik
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes